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I loathe to use a Ballardian catchword in the title but it conveys the sheer insanity and the destructive practices that the palm oil business does to our planet (if you have five minutes to spare please peruse the preceding linked pdf)


Now, thankfully (and quite possibly because of "gentle pressure"), we have the globe’s two biggest food firms, Nestlé and Kraft, who have launched internal investigations after a Greenpeace report claimed both purchase palm oil from Indonesian company PT Smart whose parent group Sinar Mas allegedly engages in widespread illegal deforestation and peatland clearance in Indonesia.


In the UK, Marks & Spencer have also made new pledges about their use of sustainable palm oil, ramping up to using only certified oil in products by 2015. But, what is certified oil?

Palm oil is used in a broad range of consumer food and toiletries products, but its production has caused massive deforestation in South Asia, placing livelihoods of humans and habitats of forest animals like orangutans under severe threat.  

The growth of Indonesia's palm oil industry is blamed for turning the country into the world's third-largest emitter of CO2 after China and the United States. Additionally Indonesia also has the fastest rate of deforestation, losing an area the size of Wales every year (every year more than 8.5 million hectares of tropical rainforests are being razed worldwide.)


According to Grist deforestation is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, amounting to roughly 20 percent of overall emissions. 20%! The issue was also one of the key issues debated at the Copenhagen climate change summit.

Under the draft text of the rules, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), oil palm plantations created by clearing rainforests would qualify for payments from a new scheme in which rich countries would pay developing countries for storing carbon in trees.

The Jakarta Times reported that Unilever has also decided to suspend the annual contract worth US$32.5 million after it obtained photographic evidence of Sinar Mas clearing protected rainforests, including reserves for Indonesia's endangered orangutan population.

"We have received very serious allegations against Sinar Mas and we had no choice but to suspend future purchases from them," Unilever's vice-president for communications, Gavin Neath, told The Times.Sinar Mas’s actions break Indonesian law and highlight how membership of the RSPO alone is not sufficient proof of a company’s environmental credentials, alleges Greenpeace. A Unilever spokesperson told “The Greenpeace claims about (PT SMART) breaking RSPO guidelines are too serious for us to ignore.”


What's the benefit of Palm oil? It is a form of vegetable oil derived from the oil palm tree (Elais guineensis) mostly produced on plantations in the tropics, notably in South East Asia. In  every supermarket shelves you will find that at least 10% of all products are made from palm oil: frying oil, biscuits, chips, chocolate, instant noodles, ice cream, cakes, mayonnaise and so much more, the list is very long.

It does not stop there. Broken down to form derivative products, it is  also used in soaps, shampoo, cosmetics and detergents and in the metal and leather industries. Palm kernel meal, which is extracted from the same plant, is used as livestock feed.

Here are a few examples of the questions you might ask yourself: what links breakfast margarine with the repression of indigenous people in Indonesia? Were your leather shoes made at the expense of the rainforests? What do crisps and biscuits have to do with the enforced displacement of rural populations?

“Around three-quarters of the world's oil palm is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia where much of the recent expansion of the industry has been onto peatland and into tropical rainforest,” according to Unilever’s website. “The clearance and burning of South-East Asia's peat forests release 2bn tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. According to some estimates, deforestation in Indonesia alone accounts for 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – making it the third-highest emitter behind the US and China.”

However the company believes the link between the cultivation of oil palm and climate change can be broken by creating a market that is sustainable and certified. Read my lips: sustainable palm oil is simply snake oil in a clever diguise.

Many manufacturers and retailers are using palm oil in great quantities to stimulate supply and demand regardless of its huge environmental impact in South Asia, where forests have been cleared to make way for more plantations. The devastation has displaced both humans and animals that live in forest regions, and makes a big contribution to carbon emissions.

The WWF has now graded 25 major users of palm oil in Europe (world's largest consumer), to see how much of the available "sustainable" palm oil they are using.

“The top scoring companies have shown what’s possible, with some buying fairly substantial quantitie but now it’s a question of whether the majority will follow,” Adam Harrison, WWF’s senior policy officer for food and agriculture. “If they do, it will transform the market, giving producers the confidence to grow more sustainable palm oil. If they don’t, there will be grave consequences for the environment.”

Low-scoring retailers included Aldi, Waitrose, Boots, Morrisons, Co-op and Tesco. While no company achieved the maximum 29 points, amongst the highest scorers were Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, Cadbury and Nestle.

The publication of the scorecard follows an announcement from Nestle this week that it will use only sustainable palm oil by 2015. But as I said above: sustainable palm oil may not be sustainable after all. You might like to read what Friends of the Earth have to say on the matter:

After a complain from Friends of the Earth International the UK advertising watchdog has ruled that claiming palm oil is "sustainably produced" is false advertising.

The link is posted above.

Palm Oil names, what to look out for:

Sodium Laureth Sulphate (Can also be from coconut)
Sodium Lauryl Sulphates (can also be from ricinus oil)
Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
Palm Oil Kernal


Elaeis Guineensis
Glyceryl Stearate
Stearic Acid

Chemicals which contain palm oil

Steareth -2
Steareth -20
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (coconut and/or palm)
Hydrated palm glycerides
Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye (derived from vegetable stearic acid)
Cetyl palmitate and octyl palmitate (and anything with palmitate at the end)

One great poster on our site at La Vida Locavore and here, rossl, has written extensively on the palm oil debacle and it is worth taking a look at the first of a series of diaries.

Originally posted to Patric Juillet on Sun Dec 20, 2009 at 12:21 PM PST.

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